Teas from the Yunnan region are considered to be some of the finest in the world. // © 2014 Thinkstock / Bartlomieji Magierowsk
Feature image (above): Visitors to Tea Horse Road can sample many varieties of green and black teas. // © 2014 Thinkstock /Successful_Nick
“Yunnan is one of tea’s ancient homes, so there is quite literally tea everywhere,” said explorer and author Jeff Fuchs.
He should know: Fuchs lives in this corner of southwestern China that was once an important part of an ancient 3,700-mile trade route known as Tea Horse Road. In 2006, he became one of the first Westerners to traverse the bygone route that, centuries ago, was the main way China exported its teas to an insatiably thirsty world in exchange for horses.
Tea Horse Road used to be as well known as the Silk Road, but it has fallen into obscurity since the early 20th century, when industrial innovations created more efficient alternatives.
Today, thanks to Fuchs, tea lovers are beginning to rediscover the route. Fuchs specializes in the Shangri-La portion of Tea Horse Road found in China’s Yunnan province. Teas here are known as Yunnan Large Leaf and are counted among the most luxurious in the world. Travelers will find many varieties of pu-erh, a golden, fermented tea with a soft earthy flavor; Dian Hong, a gourmet black tea known for its high quantity of fine leaf buds; and plenty of local green teas.
Fuchs has been leading tours of this segment of Tea Horse Road since 2011 with Wild China, a critically acclaimed, local adventure travel company based in Beijing. This September, he is joining international luxury adventure outfitters Kensington Tours to give even more travelers access to the tea-venture that he calls his backyard.
Each trip has its own unique features. The 10-day Wild China adventure is entirely focused on Tea Horse Road, providing a more extensive look at village life — including a homestay in an Aini village on the third night — and it also visits more national parks in the area. Kensington Tours’ version hits the main points along Tea Horse Road on a well-rounded six-day tour, cast within a larger, more luxury-focused 13-day trip to China that also hits must-see attractions for the first-timer, such as Beijing, the Great Wall, the Terra-Cotta Warriors and Shanghai.
“In the villages along Tea Horse Road, you have to be prepared for tea at all times. Tea and discussions of it occupy enormous amounts of time,” said Fuchs, who never leaves home without stashing some tea leaves in his bag.
On both itineraries, this means experiencing rarely seen tea rituals with locals and tasting the region’s best leaves.
In the village of Nannuoshan, reached after a three-hour hike on the Wild China trip, guests are taken to an ancient tea farm and harvest leaves for brewing. On both tours, Fuchs brings travelers to the village of Gojo where they will sip tea with a woman who is one of the last living people who traded along the route.
Kensington Tours’ China and Tea Horse Road trip runs $8,195 per person, based on double occupancy. This year, the departure date is scheduled for Sept. 14. Wild China’s Tea and Horse Caravan tour is priced at $3,650 per person, based on double occupancy. It departs on Oct. 15.
When not drinking tea, Fuchs is often enjoying the natural beauty and history of Yunnan. He guides travelers on his favorite roads, including Tiger Leaping Gorge, and he leads hikes on old Tea Horse Road paths such as at Lake Napa and the dreamy honeycombed whitewater terraces at the foot of Dragon Snow Mountain.
“How could Tea Horse Road, this utterly stunning, ancient trade route, exist for so long and not be known to the West?” Fuchs wondered aloud.
It’s a worthy question. Now, lovers of Chinese tea and culture may find their own answers.